For those of you that brain-banked advertising copy against your will during your childhood TV viewing years, there may be a flicker of recognition at the old Ivory Soap slogan, “99 and 44/100 % pure. It floats.” Apparently, around 1891, Americans were confounded by bars of soap that would disappear in sinking to the bottom of the tub and waste precious time better spent with Edison’s newfangled Kinetoscope. While convenient, the ability to float didn’t necessarily relate to purity as anyone who has visited a sewage treatment plant can tell you.
Last week, it felt like a lot of us were dwelling on purity. Let me hypothesize that it started with Chicago’s failed bid to win the 2016 Olympics. Chicago was so heartland, so real… so lobbied for by Oprah and the Obama family. How could a town that was, well, if not pure, at least really honest… not win the Olympics bid? Somehow, it wasn’t fair.
Then the weekend papers were filled to bursting with a kind of national wrestling match concerning purity. Roman Polanski should be left alone, or he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. David Letterman was clear and concise about his privacy, or he was now getting comeuppance for affairs and a rude joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter. Film maker Michael Moore was properly examining America’s affliction of greed, or he was a millionaire hypocrite. At the state level former Assemblyman Michael Duvall had done some “inappropriate storytelling” in boasting about his sex life while tape rolled, or he’s guilty of criminal wrongdoing deserving FBI investigation.
When contrasted with overt crimes clearly deserving punishment, these events seemed to be relying on a level of tongue-clucking disappointment in human behavior for their forward momentum. They could also be on our radar simply because sex sells, celebrity sex sells better, and after all that’s happened with the economy we’re hungry for tales of the mighty brought down. Or… maybe we’re back in Clinton Country.
Men and women and the left and right still differ on whether Bill Clinton’s hook-up (is there a better word?) with Monica Lewinsky represented a significant abuse of power, male and political. Erin Matson, action vice president for the National Organization for Women, asserted that Letterman’s glib handling of his situation “plays into same old sex stereotypes that men can do whatever but women should be ashamed of their sexuality.” Then the power angle. “We’re just disgusted that all these Hollywood men think they can do whatever they want.”
That might have been Matson borrowing some heat from the Roman Polanski bonfire. But I think we can safely posit that Matson is saying there’s some right path of behavior and that Letterman veered off of it. However if Polanski is criminally guilty of rape, then even loosely aligning the two events doesn’t seem fair. Unless you’re working from an angle of purity, and that there exists a default template by which we all strive to be as proper as we can most of the time. And then from that, that any wrong is wrong and in some way equally wrong to any other wrong. (Don’t make me repeat this…)
That would be disturbing if we were living in a time that required rigorous political decisions with moral implications such as “Should one person die every 12 minutes in America because they lack medical insurance?” If we were living in that time, it would be distressing to learn that instead of looking at facts and the catastrophic economic inequities in our society that are literally causing death, we were somehow more preoccupied with the purity of individuals as it manifests in their private behaviors.
Michael Moore has the same obligations relating to hypocrisy in the content of his films that William Bennett or Newt Gingrich do when they (for reasons none of us understand) are allowed to comment on anything on CNN. Once you’ve heard the tape of former Assemblyman Duvall, what you want more than prosecution is to build a kind of desert health camp where hard work in the hot sun purges crippling stupidity from a person’s operating system.
And then we have powerful men and their sex lives. Letterman may have built himself a glass house, especially for someone who is wealthy from the nightly chore of delivering judgmental jokes. But I’m at a loss to explain how revealed patterns of consensual sex will impact his ability to interview Barack Obama or go after a truly dangerous (and pathologically hypocritical) cartoon character such as Sarah Palin. We should all be better people. That we would in any way put the monitoring of our purity in first position, in front of the consequences of what we allow as a collective nation with oil wars and plundering insurance companies, would be truly and absolutely wrong. That won’t float.